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651 Arts begins a new artistic era

In 2014, 651 Arts will be 25 years old. Firmly rooted in Brooklyn, their mission is to “deepen awareness and appreciation for contemporary performing arts and culture of the African Diaspora.”In 1988, Fort Greene was a far different neighborhood than it is today.


By Carrie Stern

In 2014, 651 Arts will be 25 years old. Firmly rooted in Brooklyn, their mission is to “deepen awareness and appreciation for contemporary performing arts and culture of the African Diaspora.”

In 1988, Fort Greene was a far different neighborhood than it is today. 651 Arts began as a project of the Advisory Committee for BAM’s Majestic Theater (now the Harvey), with a mandate from the city to provide cultural programming to neighboring communities, many of whose populations were — and to a lesser extent still are — predominantly black. 651 Arts, whose name comes from the address of the building, continues to be housed in the Harvey as an independent organization.

With the hiring of a new Executive Director, Shay Wafer, in 2011, 651 Arts marked the beginning of a new era as it looks back over a remarkable artistic history. Last month, I sat down with new Marketing Manager Jodine Dorce, who joined the staff halfway through the season’s new “Live and Outspoken” series. Dorce, whose background is in event marketing, comes from Atlanta, but she has fallen in love with Brooklyn.

“I’ve been thrown into the fire,” she laughed. “It’s the best thing for me, I’m a go-go person. Arts and culture are my passion and Brooklyn has a reputation as the coolest place with fabulous arts; everyone looks to Brooklyn for the inspiration. Coming here I feel like I can stretch my arms and make an impact. I’ve been so thankful.”

Dorce has been exploring 651’s past as represented in boxes of old press materials. Co-workers — Education & Programming Associate Candace Feldman, and Finance & Human Resources Associate Dawn Robinson — are adding information where they can. Dorce says there’s new energy at 651 since Wafer began her tenure, in part because the entire staff is involved in every aspect of the organization.

“We’re introduced to the artists, we provide input in grant writing,” Dorce said.

Wafer wants the openness and passion inherent in the organization’s mission to be part of its operations. Because of that openness, Dorce says, “I have more commitment. I want her to win. I’ve been trying to find a way, through marketing, to give 651 a louder voice in the community. What we do is unique. I’m looking for ways to improve how we, as individuals working for this organization, can make ourselves more visible. That’s my focus now.”

651 Arts presents wide-ranging, often innovative productions by important culture creators and interpreters in music, writing/theater, and dance. Some of the highlights have included: jazz and blues by a range of luminaries, Donald Byrd and Randy Weston among them; women singers such as Betty Carter, Cassandra Wilson and Toshi Regon. 2002’s Rivers, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, featured an ensemble of poets, writers, musicians, and performers, including Amiri Baraka, in celebration of Langston Hughes 100th birthday. Classical/jazz composer/violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “A Civil Rights Reader” premiered at 651 in 2007 and it was an early presenter of Anna Deavere Smith’s influential solo, “Fires in the Mirror,” addressing the 1991 Crown Heights riots.

Seen above are Nicholas Leichter and Bryan Strimpel. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Often, seasons are thematically cohesive — for example, 1995’s New Orleans-based music and 2008’s Mississippi Delta Heritage Project, including a tribute to Delta blues masters and Delta Rising, an original work based on performers’ stories of their roots in the Delta created by Ping Chong and Talvin Wilkes. 2013’s programming, a mixture of arts and lectures, will focus on the Civil Rights Act of 1963.

Choreographers at various stages of their careers have graced 651’s stages. Brooklyn dancer/choreographer Reggie Wilson has both been presented and curated work. In 2002, early in his career, 651 presented Philadelphia-based hip-hop/contemporary fusion choreographer Rennie Harris/PureMovement. In 2007, at BAM, the Bessie award winning collaboration between Japanese choreographer, Kota Yamazaki, and Senegalese choreographer/performer, Germaine Acogny, Fagaala, was a sensation.

This season’s “Live and Outspoken,” a format that blends conversation and performance, gave us pairings between choreographers/dancers Nicholas Leichter and actress Eisa Davis; Brooklyn native Ronald K. Brown, a frequent 651 artist, and community activist Sonia Sanchez; Ralph Lemon and musician Jimmy “Duck” Holems; and Garth Fagan, interviewed by former Alvin Ailey lead dancer Judith Jamison.

In 2009, “FLY: Five First Ladies of Dance” presented solos by three generations of influential dancers/choreographers-Germaine Acogny, Carmen de Lavallade, Dianne McIntyre, Bebe Miller, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar-all with a 651 history.

This season’s original culmination, a celebration of 81-year-old de Lavallade performing her autobiographical “My Life in Dance and Theater and Legends I Met Along The Way,” was postponed when Miss de Lavallade joined the cast of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Instead, partnering with The New Black Fest, 651 is presenting “HAPPYFLOWERNAIL,” exploring gentrification, ownership, freedom and survival in a solo, written and performed by Radha Blank, portraying five distinct women searching for ‘home’ in a Korean-owned nail salon in Bed-Stuy.

In addition to performances, 651 Arts — partnering with online Bomb Magazine — has created a New Arts & Media fellowship, funded by Deutsch Bank and Council Woman Letitia James.

Fifteen Brooklyn students research and conduct artist interviews, work with sound production, etc., leading to blogs and other forms of digital journalism. The kids are shy at first. As they get into the program their “confidence levels go way up,” Dorce says.

Dorce told the following story as an example: one of the kid’s first interviews, as part of “Outspoken,” was with actress/playwrite Regina Taylor and actor DelRoy Lindo. One of the student interviewers spoke quietly, in an shy voice. “Are you talking to me?” Lindo asked in that giant voice of his, demanding confidence from his interviewer.

“It was the best lesson,” says Dorce.

Wafer hopes to make some big changes at 651 Arts, Dorce told me, including bringing currently part-time staff on full-time. And, like every presenting organization, she’d like to see the organization in its own building before its 25th anniversary. The local arts community has been great; Mark Morris and Long Island University’s Kumble Theater have been particularly welcoming as presenting venues.

“But we want our own house, our own facilities without constrictions. We do a lot of artist residencies, everything from traditional dance from various regions of Africa,” to workshops with emerging American artists, Dorce says. A building “gives you a physical footprint in Brooklyn.” It means “you have more obligations, but you speak louder.”

Dorce sees her part in this effort as clarifying 651’s marketing, upgrading their profile and creating a consistent brand. “Target, Disney,” she says, “are always the same, you can’t touch the logo. When I came, 651 had seven different logos! I’ve been adamant we settle on one.”

Dorce is excited. “It’s all new. It’s really not a job; it’s a blessing. I’m having fun!”

“HAPPYFLOWERNAIL,” May 25, 2012 at 7:00 p.m. Mark Morris Dance Center. Free, RSVP required at For more information

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